‘They always instinctively knew what I was looking for’ — the enduring legacy of Studio Prints
Across more than four decades, the London firm run by Marc Balakjian and Dorothea Wight pulled prints for some of Britain’s greatest artists. Illustrated with works offered online by the likes of Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Celia Paul, Paula Rego and Stephen Conroy
‘The aim of the printing workshop is to encourage full cooperation between artist and printers at all stages of proofing and printing an edition,’ stated a 1969 prospectus for Studio Prints. ‘It is felt that an artist’s personal participation in the production of his own work is helpful in producing a consistent edition and fulfilling his editions in every way.’
As a mission statement it made clear the principles that guided the London firm for more than 40 years: the emphasis on cooperation between artist and printmaker, and the importance of artistic involvement at every stage of the creative process.
Studio Prints was established in 1968 by Dorothea Wight, who had recently graduated from London’s Slade School of Art. Taking advantage of a government grant, she bought a Kimber intaglio press and installed it ‘in a derelict, damp basement at a rent of £2 per week’, and immediately set about printing.
The timing was propitious, as the late 1960s and early ’70s saw a surge in demand for prints by contemporary artists. At the start of this boom, when there were comparatively few places where editions could be printed, commissions from artists and their publishers began to arrive almost as the press was being set up.
The firm’s premises in Kentish Town, northwest London, was originally an early branch of the supermarket chain J. Sainsbury, which had survived complete with ornate glazed tiling and marble counter tops (‘perfect for rolling-up ink’). News of the venture spread, and in 1970 the BBC arrived to film a documentary as part of its Craftsmen series, entitled At a Printmakers’ Workshop, showing Wight and her small staff hard at work.
The year 1974 saw the arrival of Marc Balakjian, an Armenian who had grown up in Lebanon and, like Wight, was a Slade alumnus. Within two years, four presses were in almost constant use at the firm, which now boasted a rotating staff of five printers specialising in traditional methods of etching.
In addition to the commercial work, Balakjian and Wight made time to print their own work, which was not an easy thing to do. The two also developed a personal connection and, three years after his arrival at the studio, Balakjian and Wight married.
Artists — including those associated with figurative work who came to be known as the London School — tended to find their way to Studio Prints by word of mouth, and once there would begin working with either Balakjian or Wight. The decision as to who would work with a particular artist was an organic one. What is clear is that both enjoyed bringing out the best in their artists and their plates.
When they were presented with an etching plate that had been made elsewhere, the challenge was to get the most out of it, to ‘reveal’ what was there. But when an artist brought them a work in a different medium, such as a watercolour or drawing, the task was to work out how best to translate it into a print. Each project involved solving problems on the fly, something both clearly relished.
Balakjian characterised the printer-artist relationship as akin to that of a taxi driver and passenger. The passenger sets the destination, and the driver chooses the route. The ultimate objective was to print the plate in a way that remained faithful to the artist’s intention. The ultimate crime was for the printer to impose his own ideas, and print the plate in a way that merely showed off his skills.
Key to Wight and Balakjian’s success was the fact that they were published printmakers in their own right. Added to their formidable technical skills, this insight into what makes an artist tick goes some way to explaining the uniquely productive atmosphere that they managed to create.
Over the years, a long roll call of distinguished artists would benefit from this atmosphere, including such luminaries as Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach, R.B. Kitaj, Paula Rego and Michael Ayrton.
It was Celia Paul who recommended the firm to Freud, who arrived in 1985 bearing a plate which had already been used to print half of a planned edition elsewhere. Completing the edition was no simple task, as Balakjian had to match the printing style used by the previous printer.
With this challenge successfully met, Freud was to become an important client of the studio for the next quarter of a century. At regular intervals he would ring the studio and ask for a number of copper plates to be cut and prepared.
Weeks or even months later, one of these would be brought back, ready for biting in the acid bath. Freud was always there when this was done, arriving after lunch and leaving later that evening with the first pull. There were times when a print was rejected entirely, in spite of the hours the artist had spent on it. ‘He usually knew right away when he didn’t like it. Occasionally he would sleep on it and call me the next day,’ Balakjian would later recall. Fortunately, though, outright rejection was rare.
In most cases, Balakjian would spend several days after the first pull printing a variety of proofs — lighter, darker, with more or less contrast — each testing the limits of the plate’s possibilities; a myriad of subtle and not-so-subtle choices. At the end of this long process it was not unusual to be left with a dozen different impressions. Freud would return and, with these proofs lined up in the drying room, begin a process of elimination.
Eventually two or three proofs were left, from which the final selection would be made. This proof would be signed and inscribed with the immortal designation B.A.T. (Bon à tirer, or ‘good to print’) and Balakjian would begin the long, careful task of printing the edition, making sure that each impression was identical to the B.A.T.
‘From his first day at the studio to the last it was a pleasure, and a privilege, to work with him’ — Marc Balakjian on Lucian Freud
Of his time with Freud, Balakjian later recalled, ‘We would always begin with a coffee, prepared in the style of my homeland. We chatted a little, maybe about people in the news, or London in the 1960s — he had a great fund of stories — before getting down to the task in hand.
‘Sometimes I find it hard to reconcile Lucian’s public persona with the witty, entertaining, modest and utterly unpretentious artist we knew. From his first day at the studio to the last it was a pleasure, and a privilege, to work with him.’
Another artist who became part of the Studio Prints family was Stephen Conroy. Now 54, Conroy was drawn to prints while studying at the Glasgow School of Art. ‘Printmaking has an immediacy that cannot be reproduced in any other medium, even though sometimes the process can be tedious,’ he explains. ‘Etching has a depth that even drawing can’t achieve; the thickness and smell of the ink impregnated in the paper has a completely different feeling to a drawing.’
Conroy came to work with Studio Prints after looking for someone to process copper plates that had been ‘lying in my studio for a few years’. Other printers had tried to pull from them, without success. ‘But I knew there was a possibility that the plates held something if someone decent could have a look at them,’ says Conroy. The artist was introduced to Balakjian and Wight, and they found an immediate rapport. ‘They pulled images from the plates that no one else was able to.’
What was it like working with Balakjian and Wight? ‘I worked from a distance, simply making my image on the copper, and sent it to Marc and Dorothea,’ says Conroy. ‘They would return a few different proofs and I would choose which print I wanted to edition, if any. They always instinctively knew what I was looking for.
‘Marc always thought the fact that I never made any corrections on the plate to be quite unique. But I didn't know any better. I was simply very fortunate to work with such great printmakers as Marc and Dorothea.’
Studio Prints’ exceptional run came to an end in 2009 when Dorothea fell ill; she died in 2013. Marc Balakjian died four years later, in 2017. ‘I miss them terribly,’ Conroy says.
Etchings & The London School: a Homage to Studio Prints is part of Contemporary Edition, lots 213 to 238